This Is One for the Panda Baby Book

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Bei Bei, Washington, D.C.’s beloved giant panda cub, has started to open his eyes, as Krishnadev noted yesterday. Now he can see his mother, Mei Xiang, his human caretakers, and his surroundings.

If Bei Bei had opened his eyes in another part of the world, however, he may have seen something like this:

China Daily / Reuters

At the Wolong National Nature Reserve in China’s Sichuan Province, caretakers wear full panda costumes when they interact with cubs who will grow up in protected wildlife, and not in captivity.

They do it for two reasons.

The first is to mimic the conditions of wildlife, because human attachment can hinder a panda’s chances of survival once it is released. Getting this right sometimes means caretakers will smear their costumes with panda urine and feces. Some keepers even disguise themselves as trees.

The second is to minimize stress for the animals. Imagine being a panda cub and knowing nothing but your panda mother, and then seeing some skinny, hairless creature approach you. Scary, right?

The cub pictured above is Tao Tao. When he was six months old, his keepers placed him and his mother Cao Cao in a spacious, mountainous area for wild habitat training. He is five years old now, and has never seen a human face.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t stop looking at that photo. Giant pandas receive perhaps the most human attention of any other species. The lengths that some of those humans go to care for them are truly heartwarming.

These costumes, on the other hand, are the stuff of nightmares. Here’s another keeper from the same wildlife reserve, courtesy of National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale:

A photo posted by Ami Vitale (@amivitale) on

A photo posted by Ami Vitale (@amivitale) on